The English word “mandarin” (from Portuguese mandarim, from Malay menteri, from Sanskrit mantrin, meaning “minister or counsellor”) originally meant an official of the Ming and Qing empires.Since their native varieties were often mutually unintelligible, these officials communicated using a Koiné language based on various northern varieties. When Jesuit missionaries learned this standard language in the 16th century, they called it “Mandarin”, from its Chinese name Guānhuà (官话/官話), or “language of the officials”.
In everyday English, “Mandarin” refers to Standard Chinese, which is often called simply “Chinese”. Standard Chinese is based on the particular Mandarin dialect spoken in Beijing, with some lexical and syntactic influence from other Mandarin dialects. It is the official spoken language of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the de facto official language of the Republic of China (ROC, Taiwan), and one of the four official languages of the Republic of Singapore. It also functions as the language of instruction in Mainland China and in Taiwan. It is one of the six official languages of the United Nations, under the name “Chinese”. Chinese speakers refer to the modern standard language as
- Pǔtōnghuà (普通话/普通話, literally “common speech”) in Mainland China,
- Guóyǔ (国语/國語, literally “national language”) in Taiwan, or
- Huáyǔ (华语/華語, literally “Hua language/Chinese language”) in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Philippines,
Linguists use the term “Mandarin” to refer to the diverse group of dialects spoken in northern and southwestern China, which Chinese linguists call Guānhuà. The alternative term Běifānghuà (北方话/北方話), or “Northern dialects”, is used less and less among Chinese linguists. By extension, the term “Old Mandarin” or “Early Mandarin” is used by linguists to refer to the northern dialects recorded in materials from the Yuan dynasty.
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